Key ambulance vote in West Paris set for this weekend

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WEST PARIS — Employees at Tri-Town Rescue say a vote at Saturday’s town meeting will be crucial in determining the future of the ambulance service.

The annual town meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at the Agnes Gray Elementary School. A two-part article asks if voters will authorize the selectmen to begin negotiations with Tri-Town as well as Oxford County and the towns of Greenwood and Sumner to create an inter-local agreement. The second part of the article asks if voters will allow selectmen to enter into negotiations with PACE Ambulance of Norway to provide rescue service to the town. Another article will determine whether residents will approve an annual subsidy of $25,830 for the operation of Tri-Town.

Approval of the inter-local agreement would convert Tri-Town into a quasi-municipal organization, with the towns directly involved in the ownership and operation of the service. Tri-Town is currently a private corporation with a board of directors made up of a representatives from each town served. It announced in January that it faced the possibility of dissolution due to financial difficulties brought on mainly by a decrease in calls.

“We wouldn’t be able to succeed without West Paris’s subsidy, period,” said Norm St. Pierre, who was named interim director of Tri-Town on Feb. 9.

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St. Pierre said that the change to a municipal agency would save the service two-thirds of the approximately $33,000 it spends on insurance. Steve Witham, an emergency medical technician with Tri-Town, said the switch would also allow more opportunities for grants and further education for employees. Jim Owens, fire chief of Greenwood and EMT with Tri-Town, said a quasi-municipal organization would allow the ambulance crew to be cross-trained as firefighters if they so desire, a benefit which could also address daytime staffing shortages on volunteer fire departments.

The employees also say the service is valuable because it offers a speedier response time than could be offered by other services. Of the 411 calls Tri-Town received in 2009, 233 were in West Paris with an average response time of four minutes and 30 seconds. The average response on all calls was eight minutes and 22 seconds.

“We teach our EMTs that sometimes the best medicine is diesel fuel: Pick them up and go,” Owens said.

Bob Hand, director of PACE, said the service will still be able to respond quickly to an emergency. He said the average PACE response time to Woodstock is 11 minutes, while the response from Tri-Town was six minutes. In addition, a minimum of two ambulance crews are on duty at any time and an ambulance is staffed in Woodstock during the day, with other ambulances on the road if the Woodstock vehicle needs to go to a call.

“The potential is there for them to get a call anywhere in between, and we drive right through West Paris,” Hand said. “But it’s certainly not a long shot from Woodstock to West Paris when we are there, or from Norway for that matter.”

Hand said PACE is already called out to several calls to provide a paramedic. Witham argued that EMTs are essential in providing immediate treatment and assessment, and that Tri-Town has six paramedics on its  staff that it can use if they are on duty.

Tri-Town began service in 1981 to provide service for West Paris, Woodstock, Greenwood, Milton Township and part of Sumner. Last year, Woodstock residents voted 61-25 to switch their coverage to PACE.

Tri-Town collects 20 percent of its revenue from subsidies, with the Woodstock switch representing a $16,337.50 loss. Tri-Town employees argued that changing to another service to cut the subsidies would sacrifice response time and provide negligible savings when considered as a per-person tax reduction.

Tri-Town has cut salaries to offset the decrease in call volume and loss of Woodstock’s subsidy. Paramedics now make $10 per hour instead of $14, and EMTs have started volunteering their time for a $3 per hour compensation. Med-Care Ambulance, a Mexico-based service, agreed to do a 90-day feasibility study to see if it would be practical to absorb the Tri-Town staff and equipment into their inter-local agreement to continue providing coverage out of Tri-Town’s station in West Paris. However, that option fell through when West Paris selectmen did not agree to the study.

Dean Milligan, chief of Med-Care, said the service would be open to covering some of Tri-Town’s communities if that service had to dissolve. Med-Care receives 82 to 83 percent of its funding from patient billing, with the remainder coming from per capita subsidies.

Hand said PACE has also offered to provide subsidy-free coverage to West Paris, and could extend the offer to other communities covered by Tri-Town if the organization dissolves. PACE receives its funding through patient billing and assistance from Stephens Memorial Hospital, where it is based, and has not charged a subsidy in five years.

“It would be irresponsible of me to say there will never be any subsidy, but I don’t see any coming along,” he said.

mlangeveld@sunjournal.com

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